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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Funding Opinion

Pandering, Craven One-Upsmanship on Tax Cuts--the Edu-Implications

By Rick Hess — September 21, 2010 4 min read
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I try to restrict my commentary to education; I don’t usually wade into broader policy debates. But the recent contretemps over tax cuts--especially the new Republican proposal announced last week by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell--has major edu-implications. The feds are already spending a trillion dollars a year more than they collect; more than 40 cents of every dollar we’re spending is borrowed money. Optimistic scenarios have us cutting this to “only” a half-trillion a year by 2020.

Responsible public leadership requires making choices. Promises of freebies and endless goodie bags undermine the resolve to make such choices. Those asking educators to steward their resources more carefully have called for unpopular steps like increasing class sizes, curtailing benefits, and substituting technology for staff. Proposing massive tax cuts--especially after McConnell declared last spring that, “Most Americans would say the real emergency here is a $13 trillion debt"--sweeps the legs out from those of us arguing that schools have an obligation to become more efficient (the argument at the heart of my Stretching the School Dollar and on display here and here in this two-parter). After all, educators will make the required cuts only if compelled by necessity and the iron assertion that we can’t keep spending dollars we don’t have.

It’s hard to credibly make that case when policymakers cavalierly reject such discipline and don’t ask it of anybody else. Why should we cut school budgets if the only result is that we can plump up unaffordable Medicare and Social Security benefits just a bit longer? Our $13 trillion debt is evidence of our unwillingness to live within our means. I don’t want to be disingenuous; I’m generally in favor of cutting taxes, so long as we don’t stick our kids--and their kids--with the tab. But it’s hard to claim we’re overtaxed if we can’t find anything to cut when eyeballing a $1.3 trillion deficit.

A recent report by my colleague Karlyn Bowman noted that 55% of respondents think taxes should be cut and just 9% that they should be raised. At the same time, though the feds are already massively outspending their allowance, most of these would-be tax-cutters don’t want to cut services. In a poll by The Economist, no more than 29% of Americans identified a single area of federal spending they wanted to cut--outside of the 71% who wanted to slash foreign aid (which constitutes a measly 1% of total spending). The same “I want free stuff now” pattern holds at the state and local level, where Pew reports that 58% of respondents oppose raising taxes to balance state budgets, and 65% or more oppose spending cuts in transportation, health care, public safety, and schools. Okay, then.

The most recent Budget and Economic Outlook, issued by the Congressional Budget Office, reports that individual income tax receipts in 2009 totaled 6.4% of GDP, the lowest level since 1950--and down from an average in recent decades of about 8.4%. Total federal revenues will account for 14.9% of GDP in 2010 while federal spending stands at 24.1% of GDP. Even if spending fell to the recent historical average of 20.7%, we’d still be hundreds of billions out of balance. We, the people, want a lot of stuff but we aren’t willing to pay for it. And we want politicians to cater to our whims, provide a free lunch, and quietly stick our kids with the bill. Even tea partiers, who have denounced irresponsible government borrowing, told New York Times/CBS pollsters in April that they think, by a 49 to 42 margin, it more important to cut taxes than to reduce the deficit.

The argument that we’re overtaxed is only serious if one is prepared to cut spending. President Obama, who promised back in 2009 that the time for kicking the can down the road had passed, is proposing trillions in “middle-class” tax cuts and new spending while awaiting the verdict of the toothless deficit commission he reluctantly embraced last winter. And McConnell? His tepid Tax Hike Prevention Act would save perhaps $300 million over the next decade, or just 8% of the $4 billion total price tag of his plan. When asked how he’d cover the other 92%, he could only appeal to the same magical commission (which he had once opposed), promising, “This is not going to be your typical commission that’s going to issue a report, sit on the shelf, and gather dust.” Oh, I see. Thanks.

The only figure in this whole sorry charade who comes across as serious is Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, with his “Roadmap for America’s Future” and its proposals to slash spending and overhaul Social Security and Medicare--and who has been vilified by Democrats for his labors. You can like or dislike Ryan’s vision (I like it), but at least it’s a serious effort to reconcile what government does with what we’re willing to pay for.

While I think schools and colleges can and must do better with limited resources, I fully understand why this kind of craven leadership makes educators feel like they’ve been unfairly singled out. Why the hell should we bother squeezing nickels out of education if we’re still going to run huge deficits and pile the debt on our kids, especially if the only result of frugality is that politicians get to give away a bit more lucre? The answer, though, is not to relax our expectations for educators but to demand serious, responsible public leadership. That means we need to stop demanding more than we’re willing to pay for.

If all our paeans to our students are more than just pablum, and if it really is “for the kids,” nothing else is acceptable. In fact, it strikes me that we educators have a special responsibility to stop letting the pols stick our students with the tab for our self-indulgence.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.